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Posted: May 01, 2014

Real estate roundup: Apps on the home front

Tech offerings lend a hand to buyers, sellers and renters

Margaret Jackson

In addition to offering Web-based searches for homes, a variety of companies have developed apps designed to put the process of buying a home in the palm of your hand.

Move Inc., which operates realtor.com, reported that the average monthly unique visitors to both its Web and mobile sites grew 13 percent year-over-year to 23.9 million in the fourth quarter of 2013, proving consumers are continuing to leverage tech tools for their home-search process.

Most residential-search applications are products of technology companies and experts, but Seattle-based Redfin is a real estate agency that’s developed such a tool. Buyers strolling through neighborhoods carrying GPS-clad smart phones armed with Redfin’s app are alerted to open homes in the vicinity.

“In a fast-moving market, we’ve been able to arm our customers with better, faster information,” said Bridget Frey, vice president of engineering for Redfin. “If you find out about a house a week before a traditional broker tells one of their customers, you have a better chance of buying it.”

Redfin serves 23 markets across the United States, including Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont. The company is looking to expand into other markets, including Colorado’s mountain region.

Redfin also has the tech-savvy to help sellers estimate the value of their homes before contacting an agent. Its Home Value Tool is the new-and-improved version of its home-price estimator, which helped increase Redfin’s listing business by 120 percent after its March 2012 launch.

Under the traditional model, agents create a list of homes in a client’s neighborhood that have sold in recent months, then narrow it down to a list of four or five homes that are most similar to the client’s residence. The agent bases his or her recommended price on the average of those sales.

But the Home Value Tool gives homeowners the ability to estimate the value of their homes independently. Users enter their address and the program provides a list of recently sold homes in the area. The tool calculates the home value based on the average of three similar houses and displays a chart for comparison and further analysis. The site also includes a button to allow users to contact a Redfin agent in the area.

“We are one of the few companies combining technology and services,” said Bridget Frey, vice president of engineering for Redfin. “It’s changed the expectation of consumers.”

While most agents receive a standard 3 percent commission on the sale of a house, Redfin pays its agents salaries plus benefits. Brokers receive bonuses based on customer satisfaction.

The process is designed to ensure that agents stick with their customers throughout the transaction.

“If the customer is unhappy, the agent won’t receive a big bonus,” Frey said. “We’ve aligned our agents’ interests with the interests of the customer. We want to make sure the customer is happy even after they get their key.”

Not to be outdone, Denver-based RE/MAX has introduced a mobile app with features to help agents and their clients, including customizable property search filters, save options for storing information on favorite properties, and a mortgage calculator to quickly determine a property’s financing feasibility.

Other companies that have developed technology to make searching for a home or renting an apartment easier include Move Inc., Trulia and Rentbits.

Realtor.com allows buyers to view photos and property details, including square footage and interior features, comprehensive information on the neighborhood and property history.

“We are in a world today where a buyer can stand in front of a property of interest and pull up all the details of that property on the spot,” said John Robison, chief technology officer at Move Inc.

Similarly, Trulia’s mobile app illustrates nearby homes for sale, including high-resolution photo galleries and detailed neighborhood maps. The residential real estate site also offers a rental and mortgage app; the former helps users find nearby homes and rentals, area details and share listings with roommates. The mortgage app supports users as they attempt to calculate affordable home prices, understand monthly payments and compare personalized loan quotes.

More help for renters and landlords

Denver’s Rentbits also provides services in the rental market. The company built technology that syndicates and posts apartment listings to 10 sites at once. It has since launched a renter-facing search engine for available properties, as well as ResidentBuddy.com, a renter's portal that allows for payment and communication. Multi-family units subscribe to the service for $1 per unit per month.

Rentbits CEO Dan Daugherty launched the company in 2006 with the aim of simplifying the lives of renters, landlords and other rental professionals. Before founding Rentbits, his experience included four years with Google, some of that time spent running the operations team for the Mountain States Region. He’s also a real estate investor.

Daugherty says the company’s newest product, remotely.com, is the only home automation platform built for the rental industry that allows renters to pay rent and submit maintenance requests with their smart phone.

Margaret Jackson is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly 25 years in the newspaper industry, including seven years as a business reporter for The Denver Post covering residential and commercial real estate. She can be reached at myjackson7@gmail.com.

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